Reviving Glasgow’s “ghost signs”

17 March 2019

New hand-painted shop front at Glasgow City Heritage Trust. Photograph: Taylor McDaniel

New project aims to uncover the city’s fading history

Glasgow City Heritage Trust (GCHT) launched Ghost Signs of Glasgow on 14 March, a new community project documenting fading signs and shopfronts around the city.

The aim is to create a record of Glasgow’s historical advertisements for businesses that have long been gone – but hopefully not forgotten thanks to this new effort.

Sam Roberts, who runs ghostsigns.co.uk, defines “ghost signs” as “fading painted sign[s]” but says the definition is flexible. “Opinions vary and so others would dispute this to include non-painted historical signage, or to exclude signage for businesses that are still in operation.”

A ghost sign on Lawrence Street in Partick. Photograph: Taylor McDaniel

The eerie nature of the fading advertisements is a common theme amongst these historical relics. Project coordinator Silvia Scopa spoke at the Ghost Signs of Glasgow launch about the inspiration for the project. She came across an old, fading sign for GS Nicol, a garment company operating in Glasgow until the mid 20th century. Seeing the faded sign sparked the idea of “connecting with something you’re not supposed to know” about the city’s past.

Roberts too, thinks that “ghost” is a fitting descriptor for these signs. “For me the ‘ghostly’ aspect is more than just words speaking to us from the past — it captures something of the visual appearance that you get with old painted signs i.e. the translucent aspect that we associate with ghosts.”

Scopa said that the ultimate goal of the project is to create a digital archive of Glasgow’s ghost signs. The archive will allow people to view photos and learn more about the history behind old signs and shopfronts.

Roberts points out that documenting and sharing ghost signs can also help with preservation. “I think that the best way [to protect signs] is to raise awareness of their presence and historical value.”  He continued: “Ghost signs should be perceived as adding interest and value to property, rather than as an eyesore to be destroyed.”

As a surprise for guests at the launch party, GCHT revealed a new hand-painted sign for their Bell Street space. The gilded sign was crafted by Ross Hastie who will run a workshop on traditional sign writing and lettering techniques in May. Along with workshops and talks related to ghost signs and the art of sign making, GCHT hopes to create walking tours in the future.

Ghost signs have a dedicated and expanding presence on the internet. Including ghostsigns.co.uk, there are several sites where bloggers and readers document signs they find all over the world. The fading advertisements also have a healthy following on twitter where #ghostsigns has an active community sharing photos and information about signs they encounter.

Glasgow City Heritage Trust is looking for members of the Glasgow community to get involved with their new project in a number of ways. Eagle-eyed Glaswegians can take pictures of signs they find around the city and post them on social media, tagging @ghostsignsgla on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. People can also volunteer to work with GCHT to create maps of sign locations and help set up the digital archive.

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